Coastal and Marine Spatial Planning: A Powerful Tool for Informed Decision-Making

By Claire Discenza

San Diego, Calif., March 1, 2012 — Oceanographic researchers and policy makers gathered last week at the University of California, San Diego, to discuss recent advances in marine project planning, which could facilitate wildlife preservation, potentially boost the economy and reduce damaging human impact along the California coast.
Greenovation Forum
Greenovation Forum at UC San Diego

The panel discussion was the latest installment in the Greenovation Forum series, which is hosted by UC San Diego’s Sustainability Solutions Institute and the Scripps Foundation for Science and the Environment. The Greenovation Forum aims to accelerate “innovation, dialogue, and action in San Diego’s green technology sector” through collaborations between science, government and industry. February’s session, entitled “Coastal and Marine Spatial Planning: Ecological, Economic, and Governance Principles for Managing the Oceans,” addressed the difficulties of making decisions about how the world’s oceans will be managed, and how informed marine planning can help.

Currently, says panelist Kathryn Mengerink, a lecturer at the Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, many local, state, and federal agencies govern different areas of the world’s oceans. This split jurisdiction inhibits information flow and slows the permitting process for projects both state and nation-wide.

As Mengerink explained, “We have a complex and fragmented system of governance when it comes to the ocean. How do these different agencies make collective decisions? How do we make smart decisions that reduce our cumulative impact on the oceans?”

One way to answer these questions is through Coastal and Marine Spatial Planning, or CMSP, a scientifically-based process for analyzing current and anticipated uses of coasts and oceans. CMSP is a complex process that incorporates scientific marine research, sharing data and necessary analysis tools, fostering discussions between policy makers and streamlining the permitting process to encourage intelligent and responsible use of the oceans.

For the process to be successful sound scientific data must be organized and made accessible to marine project planners. Panelist John Helly, Director of the Laboratory for Earth and Environmental Science at the San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC) and Scripps Institution of Oceanography, said he encountered resistance to information sharing right from the start of his first SDSC project archiving natural resources data for the San Diego Bay.

“Even though we put together this big repository of information, it became clear that the collaborators around the table didn’t want information. In fact, they actively ignored it in order to not have to deal with the consequences of having a common basis of information,” said Helly. “I don’t think that’s going to change in a big way without a lot of work.”

Helly and his team are putting in this work now, with their sights set on information sharing and improved marine collaborations. The group is currently developing a unified coastal atlas for California.

“The idea for having a coastal atlas is to provide a place where scientific data of high quality can be published under standard guidelines and policies,” said Helly. “The idea is to do it in an organized framework so it’s familiar to people without having to worry about the computer part of it. Instead you can focus on the data part of it.”

The atlas would also act as a comprehensive bibliography for marine research in California. “Citations, the references in the back of a scientific paper, are really the foundation of intellectual advancement in a scholarly enterprise,” said Helly. “They’re very important because they connect together the chain of logic from one generation to another and within and across disciplines.”

Besides gathering and organizing data, tools for analyzing this data must also be available for project planners. Erin Prahler, an Early Career Policy Fellow at the Center for Stanford University’s Ocean Solutions, presented her “Decision Guide,” an online repository of marine planning tools.

“We’re focused on developing a decision guide for marine resource managers and planners to select tools for marine spatial planning,” said Prahler. “It’s designed to facilitate decision-making by helping users visualize information and characterize problems and solutions so that stakeholders can all be on the same page. It’s great -- we have a guide that helps managers think about what they might want to consider in selecting a tool.”

Prahler described how a hydrokinetic-energy project team in Mendocino, California was able to use her decision guide. “They were able to overlap data of where animals are with maps of the rock formations and hard substrate. All of a sudden, a marine planner can see all of the pertinent information in one place, and make an informed decision about the project.”

Prahler noted there are some limitations to the software. “It’s static,” she explained. “The guide shows where the tools were in February of 2011, and tool developers are often refining their tools and adding functionality. So this is out-of-date already. The guide also doesn’t review how well each tool does its job.”

Prahler and her team are in the process of addressing these issues. “We’re working with developers of content for the federal website
. This is going to be a place for resources for coastal and marine spatial planning. We’re going to get the  guide posted on that site, but we’re also working with them to develop a dynamic rubric – a living document that we can add additional tools and start to really assess how well the tolls are doing these different functions.”

In his presentation on marine spatial planning and business, Jerry R. Schubel, CEO and President of the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, California said “Coastal and Marine Spatial Planning is a tool for bringing order to a crowded ocean.”

“It’s a way to accommodate important ocean-dependent uses while protecting marine ecosystems,” he continued. “We must protect environment -- that should be our number one goal.”

Despite their consensus that environmental protection is the first concern, the panelists noted that marine spatial planning is a process integrating everything from economic to societal goals.

Said Schubel: “Sometimes we forget that we humans are also a part of nature. We have a right to use nature. We are not only interested in protecting environments for ecosystems and our valuable resources, but also for the important goal of stimulating the economy and creating jobs in California.”

Schubel also noted that California is number one in the country in marine transportation and in coastal tourism. In 2000, those industries contributed 42.9 billion dollars to California’s gross state product, and created 408,000 jobs. “The problem is that the jobs that it creates average less than $18,000 a year,” he added.

Schubel pointed out that California could have many more higher-paying jobs if it wasn’t for the prohibitively-slow permitting process currently in place. “We could have a billion-dollar off-shore aquaculture industry with high paying jobs” he said. “How long would it take to get a permit for a sustainable venture in the ocean off California? Not in your lifetime.”

While coastal and marine spatial planning is still in its early years, the process has led to success stories in several states including Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Hawaii. In Massachusetts, for example, an ocean plan was finalized in 2009 to analyze data on habitat, fisheries, transportation, infrastructure, sediment, cultural services, recreation and renewable energy, as well as to coordinate future research throughout the commonwealth.

“There is nothing like a dream to create the future,” said Schubel, quoting Victor Hugo. “And California needs a big dream for its oceans.”

The next Greenovation Forum is taking place on Wednesday, April 11 from 4 to 6 p.m. at the Calit2 Auditorium in Atkinson Hall at UC San Diego. The Forums are free and open to the public, although registration is recommended due to seating constraints. To learn more about the series and to RSVP, visit


Media Contacts

By: Claire Discenza

Media Contact: Tiffany Fox,, 858-246-0353.